Quickly On Chris King
A journey into the heart of record collecting
by David Beal
Chris King, as many will tell you, is a helluva host: he makes a mean stir-fry, & he’ll play you anything you want to hear from his 5,000-deep collection of 78rpm records.
He lives in a cozy house outside of Charlottesville, VA; just past the front door there’s a Polyphon standing proud, a turn-of-the-century wooden contraption that works like a giant music box, with a ridged metal disk inside spun by a hand-cranked clockwork motor. Across the living room is another old rarity, a phonograph with a wood horn. Through the kitchen is the record room, constructed from scratch. A mixing board is fixed into his listening desk, flanked by a Manley EQ, a McIntosh pre-amp, external tubes, & an SP-15 built into a sidetable. 2 B&W speakers hang suspended from ceiling cables: a fitting system for the music Mr. King loves, the kind that’s always floating a foot off the ground. His record shelves are unmarked but hold all his obsessions secure — murder ballads, Cleoma Breaux, hellfire gospel sermons. He has rare books that he shows off before dinner, like ‘Fucking Is Where You Find It’ — a handmade collage-catalog of porn photos & abominable neon-colored drawings by the legendary Louie Bluie. He also has maybe the only printed material that could possibly upstage it, a copy of the 1799 Sacred Harp songbook. Bon appetit.
King is not a born vaudevillian like his fellow collector Joe Bussard (a mid-century pioneer of 78rpm obsessives, living to this day in Maryland & probably bouncing around his basement to a hot jazz record as we speak). Instead, when we start listening (I was joined by AMP comrade Sophie Abramowitz), King has a noble way of almost spinning w/ the music he plays, blending into it. He possesses a sensible, recessive demeanor while he shares the songs. A trip to visit him is above all a trip to explore the music, & King’s patient dedication to the recordings shows up in his deeply researched articles & in the gorgeous box sets he produces for various reissue labels — including his own Long Gone Sound Productions. I think w/ every record he admires, King is interested in a certain quality of breath, whether it’s in human voices or built instruments: singers blowing like grieving clarinets; fiddlers inhaling & exhaling thru their f-holes. It’s a quality sculpted & refined, perhaps, by the topography & climate of King’s touchstone regions — the Louisiana bayous & their endless rain, the Mississippi Delta & its floods, the warm windy mountains of Northern Greece. It must do something to the music, this wind & rain; it seems to move thru human lungs & fill them w/ a terror & ecstasy that few people experience & even fewer dramatize in music.
Mr. King’s record collection, like the best of them, is as eclectic as it is particular. Macedonian bagpipes bounce off Cajun fiddles & Jewish cantors & Balkan criers & Mississippi blues guitars. But every slice of his library bears the mark of something singular & throttling in his taste, a penchant for a kind of musical lift that’s refreshing & exhausting at once. He tends away from the goof & gimmick that makes many other oldtime collectors buzz — away, even, from the jauntier Charley Patton’s & the majority of yodeling discs & (god-forbid) any Tin Pan Alley — zeroing in, instead, on what zings & rattles in sacred frequencies, sending itself somewhere high, low, far away, but mostly past, past the bounds of the daily known, almost past time & space themselves. Other collectors share this inclination towards what King has called the ‘otherworldly’, the stuff that seems pinched out of the air by ancient mystical technicians of sound and tossed by accident onto a ten-inch black platter. But King seems to be doing it all w/ a higher & more private intensity, mining music for something inexhaustible & rarely tapped, seeking medicine from thrilling old unusual musical souls but never quite finding it. It keeps him searching & his collection alive, whirring & sublime.
For more on Chris King, visit http://longgonesound.com/.